An anonymous hacker has released records of 70 million phone calls by inmates in United States prisons and jails to the press—and it suggests that attorney-client privilege has been routinely violated on a huge scale.
On Wednesday, The Intercept's Jordan Smith and Micah Lee published a story saying they had been furnished with tens of millions of call records, along with links to download the content of the calls themselves. The data apparently comes from Securus Technologies, a company that provides tech to U.S. prisons and jails.
Significantly, at least 14,000 of the calls included in the cache are between prisoners and their lawyers. This, The Intercept says, is "a strong indication that at least some of the recordings are likely confidential and privileged legal communications—calls that never should have been recorded in the first place."
In fact, the actual number of calls with attorneys may well be even higher, because the 14,000 number was reached by cross-checking the hacked data with only the known landline numbers of lawyers—not accounting for mobile phones.
Business Insider has reached out to Securus for comment.
The point of attorney-client privilege is that it gives people a safe space to discuss their case with their lawyers. It is hard to formulate a strong legal strategy if the state (or private companies) could be listening in to exactly what you're saying, so such communication is generally protected from such prying.
Yes, Securus does warn you at the start of a call in a prerecorded message that "this call is from a correctional facility and may be monitored and recorded." But in states including Missouri and Texas, there have reportedly been undertakings made by Securus not to record attorney-client or privileged calls, or to delete them as soon as they take place. Despite these promises, The Intercept says its data trove includes call records and recordings from those states—showing that this hasn't happened.
Securus Technologies is a for-profit company that supplies communication technology like phones to prisons and jails, and then takes a cut of the cost charged to inmates to use them. It, and companies like it, have been criticised for the high costs they charge —according to International Business Times, at one facility it costs $10 for a phone call or $8 for a video chat.
In October, the FCC took action, slashing the cost of calls to just $0.22 a minute or less.
The Intercept does not provide any details on its source, apart from that the source is a hacker who gained access to the records (presumably as opposed to an internal whistle-blower at Securus). The source apparently took action because it thinks "Securus is violating the constitutional rights of inmates." The fact a hacker was able to gain access to this kind of data also raises questions about the company's security practices.
David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, said Securus' actions "may be the most massive breach of the attorney-client privilege in modern US history, and that's certainly something to be concerned about.
"A lot of prisoner rights are limited because of their conviction and incarceration," he added, "but their protection by the attorney-client privilege is not."